Overview of Japan posts:
Japan 1: Welcome to Tokyo! (and a killer okonomiyaki)
Japan 2: Yokohama and Omuraisu
Japan 3: What Makes Japan One Of A Kind
Japan 4: Special Japanese Neighborhoods + Those Famous Food Floors
Japan 5: A Gourmet Japanese Lunch + Roppongi Hills
Japan 6: Kyoto (1st installment, 2nd installment)
Japan 7: Disneyland and DisneySea
Japan 8: Tsukiji Fish Market & Tsukiji neighborhood
Kyoto was Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794 until 1868. I notice that ”˜Kyoto’ is an anagram of the word ”˜Tokyo,’ and I’m told that in Japanese script they mean “Capital of the East” and “East of the Capital.” Its numerous temples and shrines form the heart of art and culture in Japan. Here, the tranquility of a zen garden and the awesome stature of temples are a stark contrast to the neon lights of Tokyo.
Kinkaku (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)
It’s a blessedly clear day when we visit this temple, a former retirement villa of the 3rd Shogun of Ashikaga in the 1390s. Five layers of gold leaf coat this three-story pavilion topped by a bronze phoenix. The sun glints off the gold casting a sparkling net on the shimmering pond beneath it, the entire structure silhouetted against a shamelessly blue sky. Its majestic beauty commands a dreamlike silence from those who witness it. After coming out of our reverie, we explore Kinkaku’s surrounding park which is a wealth of moss-covered grounds and teahouses. We see other ponds with small stone pagodas as well as large and small islands.
It’s a sweltering day and at one of the rest stops, Yappi buys us a few refreshments: cones of green tea and vanilla swirl soft serve ice cream and kakigÅri, mountains of finely shaved ice dribbled with a violently vivid pink syrup and condensed milk and topped with mochi balls. Hello, Japanese halo-halo!
The most famous attraction here is the 25 x 10 meter rectangular Rock Garden. There are no trees, just 15 rocks and white gravel, a mysterious pattern finely-combed onto its surface. They say that it’s up to each visitor to ascertain what this garden signifies, thought by many to be the quintessence of Zen art. Indeed, it’s a scene that provokes deep philosophical meditation. Though there are too many visitors at the time I’m here, I can’t help but be arrested into silence, my imagination becoming more varied as the seconds tick by. Interestingly enough, the walls of the garden are made of clay boiled in oil; over time, the oil has seeped out leaving only unusual markings on the wall.
Around the bend from the Rock Garden is an extraordinary wash-basin of stone, Tsukubai. It is used for washing before the tea ceremony held in the nearby Zoroku tea-room. Inscribed on the stone is the quote, “I learn only to be contented,” which advises that he who learns to be contented is spiritually rich. Hmm, food for thought.
a kaiseki meal
A kaiseki, short for kaiseki-ryÅri, is a multi-course set meal whose many small dishes are presented with an eye for seasonality and presentation. At its simplest, a kaiseki consists of one soup and three side dishes along with rice and pickles, but the number of dishes really rests on the chef’s whim and the season, of which the Japanese are fervently aware of.
At this restaurant, we order all four kaiseki meals on the menu today since there are five of us adults. As for Boo, she’s happy to have tempura again.
Kaiseki meal #1
This is a testament to Japan’s unabashedly visual cuisine: a towering lacquer container separates out into four containers holding the respective courses. Uncovering each new dish hiding beneath the first one has us gasping at the beauty unfolding from within.
A four-sectioned bento box set. It’s a deconstructed sushi with the seafood on one side and the vinegared rice fancifully molded into a star on the other.
A chirashi-sushi (“scattered” sushi) kaiseki meal.
Yakimono (grilled dishes) are the star of this last set meal.
You’ll notice in the photos that almost all the meals have a lacquer bowl that still has its lid on. These contain the misoshiru (soup made from miso and fish stock) but the liquid inside is so hot that it’s glued the lid shut. Our kimono-clad waitress makes short work popping off the lids in no time.
All the meals, aside from their individual main courses, share the same elements: sunomono (vinegared vegetables that include root crops), the misoshiru, rice, and the dessert: mochi balls with a red bean sauce carefully ladled atop. Appearances aside, these are simple meals served with a trained eye to balance a consonance of color, shape, texture, and season. Naturally when all these elements are in play, the taste of such food is beyond impeccable.